Ever since 1979 NASCAR has run the Shootout (Now the Sprint Unlimited), the Duel qualifying races and the Daytona 500 in a multi-week celebration of the start of a new season. This is great for the fans itching for the drivers to get back into action, but its just as fun for the drivers.
Every year all the Cup teams come to Daytona with a clean slate. Some of these drivers are lucky enough to be involved pre-season, no-points, drive for cash shootout, an event that they all love and want to earn a spot in, and most importantly, win. Winning the shootout is a huge deal, you get to boast that you were the first driver to win for the new season, and for Kevin Harvick this year: the first to win in the Gen-6 race car.
In one of the odd traditional Daytona quirks, qualifying gets a special touch. You still see the traditional single car qualifying runs, but unless you earn a front row spot, they’re just practice laps. This year Danica Patrick and Jeff Gordon secured their starting positions up front. Everyone else had to race for their starting spot.
The Thursday before the Daytona 500 gets two unique races, with half of the field running one race, the other half the second. While these races are vitally important due to the fact that they set the field order for the green flag on Sunday, winning – just like every other race – is on every driver’s mind.
Of course there is the obvious advantage of starting in the second row, plus the emotional boost and confidence that the victory gives a whole team can prove to be huge. More physically though, winning the race prepares you for the possible actions you might need to take at the end of the 500 to take the checker flag. This season the two duels had different styles of racing, resulting in Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch crossing the finish line first.
The connection between the two events this year paints a very clear picture: Kevin Harvick is fast. Winning both events he competed in during the last week Harvick would seemingly be the favorite for the Daytona 500, but history says otherwise.
In the first year of the shootout, Buddy Baker won both pre-Daytona events, yet failed to win the big race. The pre-Daytona sweep would happen again two years later by Darrell Waltrip, and again in 1983 by Neil Bonnett, both failed to win on Sunday. The same fate would happen twice more before the 1990′s, with Dale Earnhardt in 1986 and Ken Schrader in 1989.
In the early 90′s Dale Earnhardt won almost everything he competed in at Daytona, sweeping the shootout and Duel in ’91,’93, and ’95 and winning a Duel race every year from 1990-1999. All of this Speedweeks success didn’t lead to multiple 500 wins though, in fact, Earnhardt won his first, and only, Daytona 500 in 1998.
In 2003 another Earnhardt swept Speedweeks, this time it was Jr., but he was also unable to win on Sunday that year. Five years later Jr. would repeat those results, this time in his first season with Hendrick Motorsports. Tony Stewart swept 2007, he is still searching for a Daytona 500 victory. Kurt Busch, who completed the sweep in 2011 is also trying to win his first 500.
If you’re keeping count, that is an 0-12 Daytona 500 record for drivers who swept the Duel and Shootout events. Grim stats for all you Kevin Harvick fans.
While winning the pre-season races would suggest that someone is the favorite for the Daytona 500, it is clear that has not been the case. It seems that the short nature of these races have a large impact on who is able to win them. As we all know, it doesn’t matter who leads the first 249 laps Sunday, but who leads the 250th and final time across the line. The one thing we can determine from these races it, at the very least, Kevin Harvick will be strong at the beginning of the race.
Do you think Harvick can be lucky number 13 and go on to sweep all of Daytona? Comment or tweet @UST_NASCAR